Hugh Grant, with an edge
With AAB, he's a cad - and he hopes people notice
Hugh Grant cheerfully describes the man he plays in AAB
as "despicable." When asked how much he has in common with such a
despicable person, he equally cheerfully offers, "Plenty." AAB opens
today with Grant playing Will, an indolent, isolated and wealthy
bachelor who invents an imaginary son so he can pick up women at
single parent get-togethers. Grant himself has never needed an
imaginary son so he can attract women - he is, after all, a top
English movie star - and is by all accounts an engaging actor. But
he has more in common with his character's lifestyle than you might
think. "I spent a long phase of my life watching afternoon
television and playing snooker and being a shallow slacker," says
Grant, 41, his hair cropped short, his face sporting a few new
crinkles but as handsome as ever. "It was mainly pre-success, pre-
FWAF. I can remember days with my friends where we'd save up going
to the shops as our treat for the day, we were so bored....It
actually became quite chic for people to say, 'Yeah, I've got to get
home and watch the women's darts.' But you get into your late 30s
and suddenly this life of slack, which seemed so cool and laid back,
actually begins to look a bit tragic."
Autobiographical or not, AAB continues the break from type that Grant pulled off in BJD, where he was a bit of a rotter rather than the shy, stammering cute guy he's best known for playing. It's not that Grant wanted to change his image. He just wanted the British tabloid press to shut up. "I was getting a little jaded with being slightly patronized, less here than in England, as "the one-trick pony," Grant says. "When they're in their full sneer mode, they'll say "That's all he ever does, the fluffy nice guy." The comments stung. Though Grant tried stretching before and after he became famous (early on, he played villains in British mini-series), he never managed to do it in a hit. But the barbs also hurt because there was some truth to them. "Most actors choose their jobs according to what's interesting for them as an actor, what stretches them," he speculates. "I've always gone by, "Is it well written and entertaining?" And I have ended up doing perhaps too many similar parts. "What's gratifying about these last two films (AAB and BJD)is that they've actually satisfied both criteria. They were brilliantly written and entertaining scripts, but they also allowed me to do something different as an actor."
One striking change in the Hugh Grant of AAB is his shorter haircut.
"I had tried it a few years ago. I thought, "I've got a gap between
films now. I'd love to get rid of this flop." "But it wasn't as
cool as I hoped it would be. I looked at myself for a long time in
the mirror and I thought, "Why is this not working? Why do I not
look like Ewan McGregor?" I looked like a lady golfer.... When I
had that lesbian haircut, it didn't really work. We got it right
The new trim may help boost his hipness quotient. Grant insists the old Hugh Grant had gone out of style in his native country. "The British press has been so hip-fixated that it just was suddenly very unfashionable to be Hugh Grant of NH and FWAF," Grant says. "That seemed like old Britain, Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Luckily, the films I was making still actually seemed to do extremely well because they were funny. Even the sneerers are being nice now.”
AAB has already opened in the U.K., easily nabbing No. 1 at the box
office and taking a full third of the market share its opening week.
(That feat won't be possible in the US, given that the competition
from Spider-Man and Star Wars.) Grant says he also shares his on-
screen persona's inability to make a long-term connection to
women. "I've certainly had that problem, but I don't really know any
guy that doesn't feel that way."
He is best known for his on-again, off-again relationship with actress EH, with whom he runs a production company and is still very close. (She is enmeshed in a public battle with Hollywood producer, Steve Bing, who she says is the father of her newborn son. She has raved about Grant's moral support.) Beyond Hurley, Grant's most famous liaison was an ill-fated encounter with a prostitute that got him arrested and worldwide media attention. Though Grant won't talk about his dating habits anymore, he is seemingly unguarded in expressing bluntly unromantic opinions about marriage. When asked if that means wedding bells are unlikely to toll for him in the foreseeable future, he lets out a loud cough and changes the subject - to apes. Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape has convinced Grant that lack of fidelity is a trait men have inherited from tree-dwelling apes. "The tree dweller
is polygamous and wants to screw around as much as possible," Grant
says. "I believe those genes persist completely to this day,
particularly for men, and there's no point in denying it. "And, of
course, the French have that down to a fine art," Grant
continues. "Traditionally, you have your wife or husband, but you
also have your lover. It's just a question of discretion. The
golden rule is no one ever gets to know. I think that is the ideal
scenario." Feeling guilty, he says, adds the "spice." Regardless of
Grant's private escapades, on-screen he is unique, says producer Eric
Fellner, who worked with Grant on FWAF, NH, and BJD. "Hugh's a damn
fine actor," Fellner says. "Hopefully, people are going to not only
enjoy his performance in this but see a whole new Grant."
Despite his box office success, Grant isn't entirely happy about his career. Though he is the most popular English actor in the US, he wonders why his movies are bigger just about everywhere else. "The films I've done that have been most successful were big hits in America, but whereas most films are 50% America and 50% the rest of the world (at the box office), all those films were 30% America and 70% the rest of the world. For some reason, it's lopsided." That was true even of NH, which grossed $115 million in North America. Could this be because Grant is, unlike most movie stars popular in the US, not American? Grant is starting to accept that possibility. But he doesn't like it. "I remember having a row with [Universal Pictures] about the poster of NH," he says. "They wanted me to take my jacket off. I said, "Well, why are you doing that?" They said, 'Well, it looks a bit British.'"